A Look Back at the General Slocum Disaster
On the morning of June 15, 1904, the General Slocum steamship set sail carrying over 1,300 passengers, most of whom were women and children and members of the East Village’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Mark at 325 East 6th Street. Passengers were headed for a pleasant Sunday jaunt to the Locust Grove Picnic Ground on Eatons Neck, Long Island. Soon after launching, however, the General Slocum caught fire in the East River, burning completely to the water line in less than fifteen minutes, resulting in over 1,000 gruesome deaths. The General Slocum disaster was regarded as the worst in naval history until the Titanic, and the greatest loss of civilian lives in New York City history until September 11th.
Many locations associated with the disaster are in the East Village. With the 107th anniversary of the incident today, we thought it would be appropriate to take a tour around the neighborhood to acknowledge several locations directly associated with this devastating tragedy.
Located at 325 West 6th Street is the former German Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Mark, which was listed on the State & National Register of Historic Places in 1990 (the full report can be read on our Resources page). The Church was originally constructed in 1847 as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Matthee for Dutch, German and English Lutherans, and ten years later became the German Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Mark, serving the East Village’s burgeoning German-American community. In 1940, the church was converted to a synagogue, reflecting the neighborhood’s transition to one of the world’s largest Jewish communities. The building is known today as the Community Synagogue Max D. Raiskin Center.
The General Slocum Disaster played a role in the building’s transformation from a German church to a synagogue. As its victims were nearly all German women and children, among the major social impacts of the disaster was the migration of the remaining German men to outlying neighborhoods (bear in mind that in the decades prior to the disaster the neighborhood had been known as Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany,” and housed the largest German-speaking population in the world outside of Vienna and Berlin). With the fleeing of much of the German population, a Jewish Lower East Side began to emerge. The Community Synagogue and the General Slocum Disaster were quite literally at the center of the beginning of this transition.
No. 325 East 6th Street was calendared by the Landmarks Preservation Commission for consideration as a potential NYC landmark way back in 1967. Since that time, no further action has been taken to designate the building an individual landmark, but fortunately this block is included within the boundaries of the LPC’s newly-proposed East Village Historic District. After all this time, the building might finally receive the honor and protection it deserves.
Many of the victims of the disaster resided right here in the East Village, and most of their homes are still standing (not surprising, since a vast percentage of the East Village dates from the 19th century, as we’ve discovered in our research on the history of every single building in the entire neighborhood). A New York Times article published the day after the incident tells of John Q. Schwing, a patrolman at the Alexander Avenue Station, heroically rescuing Barbara Dohefer of 131 Avenue A and Andrew Sommer of 17 East 6th Street.
The very pier from which the General Slocum departed was located at the foot of East Third Street. In 1934, however, Manhattan was extended as construction began on East River Drive, today known as the FDR Drive. All of the docks along the river were at this time destroyed, including the original pier from which the General Slocum set sail that doomed morning. Today, the Lillian Wald Houses occupy the site.
According to the NY Historical Society, “The last survivor of the Slocum disaster died… at age 100… on the century anniversary of the tragedy. Adella Liebenow Wotherspoon lost two sisters, two cousins and two aunts on the boat. Her mother, Anna Liebenow, was badly burned and bore the scars for the remainder of her life.”
In 2004, the year of her death, the New York Times reflected back on Adella’s youth. “The disaster surely framed the life of Adella Martha Liebenow, who was born in Manhattan on Nov. 28, 1903,” the newspaper reported. “A year afterward [in 1905], the youngest survivor unveiled the monument to the 61 unidentified dead at Lutheran Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens. The toddler dropped her doll as her mother held her up to pull the cord to reveal the sculptures of four figures symbolizing despair, grief, courage and belief in the hereafter. The mother’s face, still cruelly scarred by the burns she had suffered in protecting her little one, flushed with pride that the baby made no mistake and pulled the cord as directed with strength enough to make the unveiling a success.” In 1906, a year after the memorial in the Lutheran Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens was dedicated, Adella dedicated a second memorial to the victims of the General Slocum in the East Village’s own Tompkins Square Park.
In response to the disaster, the the Liebenow family was active in forming the Organization of General Slocum Survivors. The organization met at Schuetzen Hall, still standing at 12 St. Marks Place.
The impact of the General Slocum disaster on the neighborhood was immeasurable; indeed, it would be hard to overestimate the despair felt by this community. There was said to be a funeral taking place every four minutes. Not a single family in the East Village’s German community went untouched by the tragedy – be it through the loss of friends and neighbors, or of their immediate – and sometimes entire – families. Seeking to escape painful memories, many moved away to outlying neighborhoods. The era of the East Village as “Kleindeutschland” had begun its ultimate decline.